Sometimes I wish I had become a librarian, or maybe a florist. Something non-descript or attention drawing.

Not for the money or the prestige that comes with making flower arrangements or being awesome at research, but so that when I’m making small talk with someone at a party or meeting a new friend of a friend, I can avoid the conversation that comes along with the question “So what do you do?”

When I say I’m a dancer – and after clarifying that I’m not that kind of dancer – I always always ALWAYS get asked one of two questions:

“Can you do the splits?”

or

“You must be pretty flexible, huh?”

This question is often times accompanied by a questionable expression and a once over, and it’s these sorts of questions that make me wonder what kind of innuendos florists get from guys at the bars.

People associate dancers with flexibility, which I guess is understandable, but nobody really takes the time to consider what goes into being able to create all those weird and inhuman shapes. I think a lot of people assume dancers are born being naturally flexible.

That flexibility doesn’t just happen on accident. Plenty of people have seen Dance Moms where that portly coach makes the girls stretch until they cry. When I was on dance team in high school, our coach (who didn’t really have any credentials, for the record) would tell us that we NEEDED to have splits on both sides and we should shoot for the center ones too, and that we should sit in front of the TV at night and just stretch, to stay in our splits for a half hours while our body tried to adapt.

This no-pain-no-gain attitude holds prevalent in most dance studios or else places where the teachers are uneducated in the body. There have been plenty of times when I have walked into a class where I see the other dancers in the ground, in their splits or else some extreme position, holding it for a long time as they chat with their friends or else subtly glance at the teacher to see if they’re looking.

I was recently at an audition for Royal Caribbean cruise line in Las Vegas. This was my first not-modern dance type of audition, so I wasn’t fully sure what to expect.

Well, I tipped my Uber driver my last few dollars and walked into the little dance studio where the audition was being held. I’d put on more makeup than usual and brushed my hair and wore a fluorescent pink tank top beneath a somehow even more fluorescent pink warmup jacket because they were going to notice me, dammit. When I walked into the studio, I was told that we could warm up in one of the smaller studios, so I kicked off my shoes like I’d done this a million times before and walked into the studio.

Like a yard covered in leaves, the floor was littered with dancers, some of them in their splits, some of them in other weird and uncomfortable looking positions. Some were at the ballet barre, pulling a foot far above their head. Everyone knew that, for this type of audition, the choreographers wanted high kicks and big leaps, so they were doing what they had been taught and what seemed like the logical thing to do – stretch their legs.

What these dancers didn’t and don’t realize is that they are really doing themselves a disservice, stretching to the extreme like that before the audition started. No matter how many pairs of legwarmers or garbage bag pants you’re wearing, you’re not going to be warm enough for that stretch to be beneficial. In fact, it’s going to do the opposite.

For example, a big part of dance is jumping. We jump straight up and beat our legs back and forth, we leap with our legs outstretched, we twist in the air and switch our legs around and dive roll to the floor. These athletic feats require strong “horse legs,” as one gentleman friend of mine put it. The calves, the quadriceps, the hamstrings, the glutes, as well as the more internal connective tissue like the psoas, must be in excellent shape. If you have to jump up high enough that you have enough air time to change your legs around, your legs have to be strong.

Strength and flexibility are two important physical traits for a dancer – though may I add that nobody ever asks me how strong I am when they find out I’m a dancer -but the processes of becoming strong and flexible at the same time are difficult to balance.

When you stretch a muscle (and its respective tendons and fascia and other connective tissue), you are really trying to lengthen it. Obviously, you are not really lengthening your muscles, or else people would accumulate long, excess muscles that would pile up under their skin like a sleeve full of spaghetti.

Your muscles are made up of fibers called fascicles, which in turn are made up of even smaller, thread-like bands called myofibrils. If we keep going down the chain of composition, these myofibrils are made up of smaller bands that lay end to end, called sarcomeres, and the sarcomeres are made up of filaments, thick and thin, that overlap, called myofilaments. These myofilaments are made up of proteins.

In short, your muscles are made up of small fibers that lay end to end, which in turn are made up of smaller fibers, and then smaller fibers, and then protein. These fibers slide past each other during contraction.

When you stretch, some of these fibers lengthen, and some don’t do anything but go along for the ride. When the sarcomeres stretch, there is less overlap among the thick and thin myofilaments. As these myofilaments reach the extent of their resting length, the connecting tissue also relents to the force of the stretch – because nothing that happens in your body is an isolated incident; everything is connected, and cause and effect in the body spans a huge and sometimes unexpected breadth (Appleton, Brad).

If all those names aren’t doing it for you, look at your hands. Interlace your fingers like you’re pondering something at an important meeting. When your muscles contract, it’s like when your fingers are interlaced. When your muscles stretch, it would be like if you moved your hands apart and your fingers slid past each other so that maybe just your first joints are still overlapping.

After all of that, though, your muscle, your sarcomeres – it’s not going to stay permanently stretched. This is where the central nervous system kicks in.

The pain you sometimes feel from stretching? From bending over too far or kicking too high? That’s your central nervous system, firing off pain signals in your body because it thinks what you’re doing is unsafe. Your body is ready to protect itself. Your CNS sets off a stretch reflex to protect you – this can result in a pulled muscle, though – while still a better result than a more serious injury – which will inhibit your performance for at least a little while, and which makes you susceptible to more serious injury if you continue to work the way you were.

To become more flexible in a more permanent way, you not only have to work on your muscles, but on your central nervous system, The reason you hold a stretch for the recommended length of time is that your muscle spindles are able to adjust to the new length of the muscle, and they reduce signaling the spine, which in turn signals your CNS. Over time, you can retrain your CNS to calm down and know that it’s okay to be stretched out so far, but it takes a good investment of time and body awareness to reach a point where you can plop into an extreme condition without having to stretch prior. As Brad Appleton, writer of the “The Physiology of Stretching” article says, “While this type of control provides the opportunity for the greatest gains in flexibility, it also provides the greatest risk of an injury if used improperly. Only consummate professional athletes and dancers at the top of their sport (or art) are believed to actually possess this level of muscular control.”

Short term, though, the time it takes for the muscle and the CNS to figure itself out isn’t as ambiguous as one might want to believe. Stretching in one position – static stretching – for longer than 30 seconds is detrimental to your muscular power output. Those girls sitting in their splits before class are going to jump lower than the girls doing more dynamic stretching exercises.

Thirty seconds is a pretty exact number to come by. After all, your muscles can’t really tell time – OR CAN THEY?

In 2014, some Brazilian scientists from the Federal University of Rio Grande found that athletes’ vertical jumping power decreased by 4.2% decrease in jump power after 60 seconds of static stretching prior to their jumps. However, there was no decrease after holding each stretch for less than 30 seconds (Pinto, Matheus D. 3440).

Benign as these small percentages may seem, in practical circumstances, you want every bit of power that you can get. People lie about their height by half inches and their weight by just a few pounds, so it makes sense that athletes and other types of movers want every percent of power they can muster. It can mean the difference between getting the ball into the hoop or being capable of performing some kind of crazy switch leap. It can make the difference between clearing a hurdle and face planting in front of a crowd.

And it’s not just your legs that are affected by static stretching at the wrong time. This year’s issue of Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research through the National Strength and Conditioning Association, took twenty-one young, trained female handball players and assessed their strength, range of motion, and their throwing performance after warming up with static stretching, static stretching and dynamic warm ups, and dynamic warm ups without any static stretching. These scientists are not just looking at whether or not static stretching is detrimental, but if its detrimental effects can be minimized by including it within a more dynamic movement warm up.

The girls’ power and range of motion was measured in a few different ways, including throwing a handball with the dominant hand, the speed of which was measured with a radar gun, and throwing a 2 kg medicine ball, the distance of which was measured. Both of these tests were measured over the course of three nonconsecutive days within a week, and both tests were performed after the girls did static stretching, a dynamic warm up, and both static stretching and a dynamic warm up. Every test had reproducible results.

Of course, the girls showed an increase in their range of motion after any stretching, and there was no significant change when they only performed dynamic movement without stretching. There was little change in the speed at which the girls could throw the handball. This is because the method of throwing is less based on muscular power and moreso how quickly one can twist their body in the throw.

The girls showed a significant decrease in the distance they could throw the medicine ball after they had performed static stretching. The effects when comparing the distance after a dynamic warm up versus a dynamic warm up along with static stretching were negligible.  These scientists summarized their own results by saying that static stretching, while it increases range of motion, has an acute negative effect on muscular power. The most interesting point about this is that “stretch-induced strength loss is a neural effect…stretch-induced strength decrease may be in part, due to a central nervous system inhibitory mechanism.” So it’s not necessarily that you’re tearing your muscle fibers (though this can also occur), it’s that your central nervous system is trying to protect you by not allowing your muscles to, well, move or exert power, to their fullest extent. Your muscle needs your CNS to tell it what to do, and if a muscle is activated by a sudden stretch, for example, when your body is cold and you hold a stretch, your CNS stimulates your muscle to contract and shorten (Mascarin, Naryana C.1393 – 1398). This is not the sort of response your body needs right before you go into an activity.

This particular study proves that this particular group of girls was negatively affected by just static stretching, but these negative results were neutralized when the static stretching is combined with more dynamic warm up movements.

Another way to think about it is to find some silly putty, or at least think about silly putty.  Think about what happens when you stretch it out. It’s a lot easier to break stretched out putty than putty in a solid clump.

So static stretching, especially without a proper warm up, can negate the power of your muscles. But wait, there’s more – a different group of researchers from the University of Sao Paulo – the Endurance Performance Research Group – did a study on sprinters that proved a negative correlation between static stretching and the central nervous system.

Granted, this was a small study: there were eleven runners in total who were tested, all men who were “recreationally trained long-distance runners” between the ages of 29 and 41 and who trained consistently for at least two years. So these people weren’t just some reluctant track team members who needed a school sport to please mom and dad; these people were serious about running.

These Sao Paulo University researchers conducted experiments not dissimilar to the throwing study, and they did all this with the runners performing static stretching before the tests, and with the runners not stretching before the tests.

Over the course of five sessions, the runners would run at a constant speed for six minutes. Then, after a recovery period, the runners would warm up for five minutes on a treadmill after which the scientists increased the speed by 1 km/hr every minute.

Of course, the scientists were very encouraging of the runners, and gave positive verbal feedback so that the runners would run as long as possible. The test was over when the runner signaled that they were exhausted and unable to continue.

The runners, in a different session, were tested on their drop jump vertical. A drop jump would be like if you got out of your chair, stood up on the coffee table, ignored all the weird looks around you, jumped down to the ground and then jumped straight up again.

The runners were also tested on how fast they could run 3 km on an outdoor track. This was the penultimate test that the scientists really wanted to get at to measure the effect of static stretching on the CNS

These runners, as exhausted as these trials alone would have made me or other jogging-adverse types, didn’t seem to phase them; they were instructed to continue their normal running programs during the three weeks it took it conduct this study, though they were told not to do anything that might exhaust them or anything out of the ordinary.

The scientists expected that static stretching would “increase the energy cost of running, reduce the capacity of lower limbs to produce explosive force, and reduce the initial speed in the 3 km-time trial.”

Now, no matter what sport you do – even if it’s just recreational tennis that you play mostly so you can wear a fun outfit – none of this sounds good. Especially for dancers, who need that explosive force to jump off the ground, and who really need all of their lower limbs under control.

The researchers found that the runners had a slower start when running the 3km, even when their overall time remained the same. The runners had to work harder for the first 800m of the run. Their drop jump performance was also “significantly” affected, with the runners, who had jumped 29cm to 36 cm in the control, dropping to 26cm to 33cm.

This is CNS related, not just muscular, because of the increased neuromuscular function that is required to go from a static start to a decent pace when running. The researchers suggested that the brain interprets signals differently after static stretching, which slowed the runners down when they tried to start (Damasceno, Mayara p1-6).

It seems strange that these sorts of studies might be controversial, but the reality is that, well, they are  – and this isn’t just applicable to dancers. These studies were performed on various types of athletes, and this research and its implications affects every type of mover, from runners and hikers to tennis players and gymnasts.

Why are we so reluctant to pay attention to these studies?

to be continued

 

Image from avadancewear.com

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